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Council spied on family over school catchment area, hearing told

Poole council used powers introduced to counter crime and terrorism to determine whether children lived in catchment area

A woman took her local authority to court today complaining it spied on her family 21 times in an attempt to establish whether her children lived in the correct school catchment area.

Jenny Paton, 40, a mother of three, called Poole council "ludicrous and completely outrageous" for using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to log her family's movements.

A landmark two-day tribunal in London heard that the family was put under surveillance for three weeks around February last year to find out if they lived at an address in the catchment area for Lilliput first school, Dorset.

"I think we all need protecting from the way local authorities are using Ripa," Paton said before the hearing. "This is about saying 'no more' – let's have more safeguards and better scrutiny." She questioned why officials did not simply knock on the door and speak to her if they doubted her story.

Gordon Nardell, representing the family, told the judging panel that a council official made notes documenting the comings and goings of Paton and her partner, Tim Joyce. He said it was "quite extraordinary" that the surveillance was authorised and described it as "plainly an interference with home life".

Ripa was introduced in 2000 to give the police, security services and the Revenue and Customs service powers to spy on people in the fight against crime and terrorism. But it has been dubbed a "snooper's charter" by some after being used to monitor relatively trivial offences by some local councils.

Earlier this week, the home secretary, Alan Johnson, announced that he would curb the ability of local authorities to use Ripa. He said junior council officials were to lose the authority to order surveillance operations including secret filming and eavesdropping for "trivial reasons", such as catching people putting out their rubbish on the wrong day or letting their dogs foul the street.

In future only council chief executives and directors will have the power to order covert surveillance operations and a code of practice will ban their use for minor matters.

At today's hearing, Nardell said Paton's case was about liberty and the "extraordinary powers" of local authorities.

Also speaking outside court, James Welch, a lawyer from Liberty, which is also representing Paton, said: "We are asking this tribunal to declare that the surveillance powers used to watch Ms Paton were unlawful. This is not about the money – it's about the legal principle."

The hearing continues.

Press Association, Thursday 5 November 2009 19.13 GMT Article history